Premier League Playback: United’s faltering midfield, ‘Crystal Pulis’ to soar, Boruc’s blunder

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On Sunday in South Wales, Manchester United let in a late goal to Cardiff City as they let another two points slip through their fingers. David Moyes turned away in despair and looked to the ground in disgust.

United didn’t play well, and although it looked like they’d got out of jail with a win until Kim Bo-Kyung’s last-gasp header nicked the Bluebirds a point, the main issue with the reigning champions was in central midfield.

Michael Carrick and Phil Jones, two of United’s more robust and reliable options manning the engine room, were both missing in the fiery cauldron of Wales’ capital city due to injury. And boy, did it show. Marouane Fellaini and Tom Cleverley manned the ship in the center of the park and they were overrun by forever plugging leaks sprung open by newly-promoted Cardiff. Unable to contain, tackle or cajole their team into life from the center of the pitch, Fellaini and Cleverly all too often went for the easy ball and played it safe in possession as the heat maps below show. That stunted United’s attacking impetus and allowed the Bluebirds to garner belief they could fight their way back into the game, Cardiff’s last-gasp equalizer had been coming due to midfield battle being lost.

Click to enlarge: Marouane Fellaini’s passes vs. Cardiff City. Made no forward passes in the attacking third. (Source: Opta)
Click to enlarge: Tom Cleverley’s passes vs. Cardiff City. Only one of his 42 passes was a successful forward pass in the opposition half. (Source: Opta)

Even Carrick and Jones have had their critics in recent seasons as United have never fully replaced their illustrious midfield generals of the past. Current players Anderson, Shinji Kagawa and going further back to Owen Hargreaves, they’ve all failed to recreate United’s indestructible machine of Keane, Scholes, Butt and the marauding menaces of Paul Ince and Bryan Robson before them.

Moyes needs to add a midfield enforcer to his squad in January, as United are too often relinquishing the middle third to teams who have hungrier, more tenacious and more committed central midfielders willing to run themselves into the ground for the crest on their shirts. I just don’t see that from any of the current crop of United’s central men, including Fellaini and Cleverley after their lackluster displays against Cardiff.

Fellaini and Cleverley aren’t bad players but they’re both afraid of failure and scared of taking people on. Between them they didn’t even attempt a dribble on Sunday and for so long United have had perfect dovetailing central midfielders, when one attacks, the other sits and vice versa. Anybody who watched Keane and Ince in their prime will tell you how beautiful that is to watch. The duo of Fellaini and Cleverley played together in the middle for the first time at Cardiff and you could tell that, they had no cohesion, no link and were all out sea.

Will they ever get the chance to shine in central midfield together again? After that combined performance, probably not. Back to the drawing board for Moyes.

Premier League Schedule – Week 12

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 2-0 Southampton Recap and watch here
Cardiff 2-2 Manchester United Recap and watch here
Everton 3-3 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Fulham 1-2 Swansea Recap and watch here
Hull 0-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Man City 6-0 Tottenham Recap and watch here
Newcastle United 2-1 Norwich Recap and watch here
Stoke 2-0 Sunderland Recap and watch here
West Brom 2-2 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
West Ham 0-3 Chelsea Recap and watch here


Let’s break down three controversial moments from the weekend, as two red cards were dished out incorrectly and one should have been given in the Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool.

Some of these decisions were incredibly bad, and given the exasperating precedent set by referees chief Mike Riley last week — when he apologized to West Brom manager Steve Clarke for a last gasp penalty handed to Chelsea that cost the Baggies a win — plenty of PL managers will be hoping to receive an apology via the post.

Mr. Riley, get your quill and parchment ready, you’ll have some serious apologizing to do this weekend after three horrendous mistakes. The floodgates have opened, Riley should’ve never apologized as now he’ll never stop apologetically nodding his head in agreement and offering his hand out in reconciliation.

Too many of the big decisions are being called incorrectly as referees come under more criticism in the PL. Here’s my take on three of the worst calls (because, in truth, there were so many more) this weekend.

  • Wes Brown’s red card vs. Stoke City – NO

The phantom tackle of Brown baffles me every time I see it. It isn’t, wasn’t and will never be a red card. Gus Poyet was incensed at the decision as he tore his puffy coat off in frustration, screamed at the officials and stomped his feet in frustration. Brown slid in and made a perfect, yet slightly lunging tackle. He was in control as he disposed Stoke’s Charlie Adam and may have faintly grazed the Scotsman as he slide through. This cost Sunderland any chance of grabbing a point or more at the Britannia.

  • Yannick Bolasie’s red card vs. Hull City – NO

Yes Bolasie does go over the top and lunges into this one, but he’s on the edge of the box and scrapping for every ball as two newly-promoted teams battle for a crucial three points 12 minutes from time. Out of all three, this decisions is the most sane, but it still isn’t right. Bolasie slips before the tackle is made, Jake Livermore is already going to ground and has also raised his foot and at worst it’s a yellow card.

  • Kevin Mirallas’ potential red card vs. Liverpool – YES

This has to be one of the worst tackles I’ve seen in the modern era. Yet Belgian winger Kevin Mirallas somehow stayed on the pitch as he lunged with a high foot and aimed to decapitate Luis Suarez’ right leg at the knee. The ball was bouncing up as the two players clashed by Suarez got to the ball first, knocked it away and was clattered recklessly into by Mirallas wild and dangerous right foot with his studs showing. An instant red card was the only option here. How it wasn’t… I’ll never know. Seems like Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers agrees.

“I thought Mirallas should have been sent off. He caught him [Suarez] on the back of his knee and that can end your career. It was awful jumping in like that.” Mirallas also agreed… wait, what? Straight up, here’s the evidence.

We can’t finish this section without the highlights to the Merseyside derby, I asked if that was “the best Everton vs. Liverpool battle in history?”  Judge for yourself by watching the highlights below.


Everyone expects us to get relegated and it will be nice to prove people wrong. I like climbing hills and this will be a tough job but one I will relish – New Crystal Palace manager Tony Pulis

Palace dispatched Hull City 1-0 on Saturday, watch above, as the Eagles lifted themselves off the bottom of the table as their new manager arrives amongst a sea of optimism.

Earlier on Saturday the South London side announced former Stoke City boss Tony Pulis is their new manager. I believe that’s a fantastic decision. Just three points from safety after that huge win, Pulis’ side has given themselves a fighting chance of climbing out of the relegation zone. Expect them to grab it with both hands.

This is a fact: Palace will be a horrendous side to play against for the rest of the season. Think Pulis’ Stoke City on steroids. The Eagles have something to prove, as does Pulis after his seven year spell at the Potters came to an abrupt end last season when he failed to kick them on to the next level. That burning desire to prove everyone wrong will create destruction and distress for every team they come up against in their remaining 26 PL games of the season. The Eagles aren’t ready to land in English soccer’s second-tier, in fact, they’ve yet to even take off in the top flight. You’ve been warned, Pulis’ first game in charge away at Norwich will showcase that.


If Manchester City aim to keep obliterating teams at home, watch above and shield your eyes Spurs fans, but struggle to snatch a point on the road, a second PL title in three years won’t be heading to the Etihad Stadium this season.

On Sunday City smashed Tottenham — I mean, completely knocked them out of the stadium and into the parking lot — 6-0 as they flexed their title credentials impressively. But if they keep losing on the road to basement boys and continue to augment their splendid home displays by hemorrhaging points on their travels, Pellegrini’s dream of delivering a Championship are dumbfounded.

The stats back my slightly snarky statement up as City have started this season with a poor record of W1-D1-L4 on the road. In the last 10 seasons, no PL champion has lost more than five games away from home in their title winning season… City have already lost four matches from six on the road this campaign.

What is the answer I hear you cry?

Plenty of foreign stars feeling intimidated in hostile atmospheres across a plethora of rough and ready English cities could be a reason. Another could simply be that they prefer to score early and settle their nerves in games and away from home the opposition are more likely to have a go at City and score first. The Citizens resilience is then called into question and so far they’ve failed to hit back when they’ve been dealt a blow away from home. If other sides get a foot hold at home against City, they might as well pull their goalkeeper and put the handbrake on because Pellegrini’s men look devoid of ideas when they go behind. When they’re on form Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo’s burgeoning partnership can rip any team apart, we’ve spoken about that before in PL Playback after City demolished United… it seems as though the duo that initially showed promise has now blossomed into a full-blown goal scoring tandem of tricks, flicks and boat loads of goals. Aguero has 10 goals, Negredo has five and City have 34 goals in 12 games.

But this struggling form away from home has to be addressed and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t a Pellegrini-ism. It’s been going on for years. Many have put City’s struggles on the road down to their new Chilean manager being out of his comfort zone in unfamiliar surroundings at the Britannnia Stadium, Villa Park or the Stadium of Light. What a load of old tosh.

In the four seasons before the current campaign, since City became perennial title contenders, their away record reads as follows.

2012-13 – W9-D6-L4 | 2011-12 – 10-4-5 | 2010-11 – 8-4-7 | 2009-10 – 6-9-4

No team has won the Premier League title having lost four of their first 11 games since 1968… the last team to do that and win the league was… Manchester City. If they pick up their away form and continue to blow teams away at the Etihad, they won’t be far off a historic repeat.

City’s manager Pellegrini isn’t worried by those stats and said the following with a cheeky grin on his face: “I don’t believe in statistics in football. I believe football has some relation with mathematics but not always. If you win all the games from now until the end, maybe we will win the Premier League.”


During a debate on the BBC following the weekends action, former Newcastle and England goalscoring legend Alan Shearer had this to say about the new task handed to many PL ‘keepers.

“Goalkeepers are more footballers now than at any other time,” Shearer said. “They’re part of the back four.”

I’m not trying to defend Southampton’s goalkeeper Artur Boruc for his embarrassing blunder, watch above, but his problems have come from being a ‘keeper asked to play the ball with his feet and become a part of the defense, when his main job was always to keep the ball out of the net.

In the modern era, ‘keepers have become a fifth defender and are encouraged by many managers to get involved and keep possession of the ball rather than lump it aimlessly up field every time it’s sent back to them.

On Saturday in Saints’ biggest game of the season so far, Boruc tried three ‘Cruyff turns’ in his own box and lost out to Olivier Giroud who easily tapped home and left an embarrassed and livid Boruc cursing on the floor. That goal put his Southampton side on the back foot and cost them any real chance of upsetting the league-leaders at the Emirates and helping the Saints leapfrog them into top spot. But ever-since Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino arrived at the South Coast club, Boruc has been taking more risks with the ball at his feet and he’s encouraged to do so. If that’s what the manager wants, mistakes like this will happen. Southampton keep the ball better than almost any team in the league and that starts with Boruc’s patient, yet dangerous, build up from the back.


Spurs were also the masters of their own downfall with a goalkeeping error after just 13 seconds against Man City in their humiliating defeat. Hugo Lloris’ mistake was a little different to Boruc’s as he miskicked the ball straight to City’s attackers who then capitalized brilliantly on a skewed clearance. But it was almost as if Lloris held back from giving the ball an almighty punt and was hoping his short kick would find a Spurs teammate and keep the ball in Tottenham’s possession. The Frenchman is the best ‘sweeper-keeper’ in the league and regularly launches off his line to become a defender and play the ball out of danger.

Goalkeepers in the PL should get back to doing that.

Keeping it out of their goal and giving it a bloody good whack upfield to make sure the ball is as far away from danger for as long as possible, that’s their job, right? Yet Boruc and Lloris are encouraged to play from the back by their managers, so mistakes like those they made at the weekend will happen. Ultimately they were bad individual errors but if their sides want possession from the back, ‘keepers shouldn’t be lambasted for giving the ball away or getting caught in possession. Look how often it happens to the outfield players they’re expected to emulate… Think about it.

Still at least Boruc saw the funny side of it… Check out the instagram picture he posted a few hours after the game, the caption says it all. Hilarious. Well, except if you’re a Saints fan…


Premier League Playback comes out every Monday and takes an alternative look at the weekends action.

‘Welcome to Zlatan’: Ibrahimovic makes play for LA’s heart

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Zlatan Ibrahimovic has really always belonged in Hollywood.

The powerful 6-foot-5 Swedish forward has loomed above soccer for nearly two decades, captivating the world with his sublime physical talent and uniquely outrageous personality. He has scored hundreds of majestic goals, won dozens of trophies and scuffled with a few teammates on his journey from Malmo to Milan to Manchester.

When Ibrahimovic officially landed with the LA Galaxy on Friday, he announced his arrival in a new nation with classic, theatrical, Zlatan-esque style.

“Los Angeles, welcome to Zlatan,” read the caption on a social media video featuring Ibrahimovic and a lion.

“Dear Los Angeles, You’re welcome,” said the back page of the Los Angeles Times sports section, with Ibrahimovic’s signature at the bottom of the mostly blank sheet.

Ibrahimovic has been labeled as both a beloved hero and an arrogant villain during his career of high-scoring exploits, but most everyone would agree he is the very definition of a star. The ponytailed 36-year-old could capture the attention of the world’s entertainment capital in a way that even David Beckham couldn’t manage.

“After 20 years in Europe, playing for the best clubs in the world with the best players in the world, I decided it’s time to move to a different continent,” Ibrahimovic said in an interview distributed by Major League Soccer. “Move over to the U.S., try the MLS. For me, there was no question about it. Galaxy was the team, and I chose them. They didn’t need to choose me. I chose them, and I come to do exactly what I’ve been doing the last 23 years: Winning.”

He’ll start next week, when the Galaxy formally welcome him to Los Angeles just three games into their 2018 MLS season. If he feels comfortable immediately, he could even debut in a derby against their new archrival Los Angeles FC on March 31.

The Galaxy are coming off a last-place MLS finish after winning a paltry eight league games last season, but Ibrahimovic doesn’t expect the five-time league champions’ woes to linger with him leading the line.

“I want to accomplish as much as possible,” Ibrahimovic said. “Wherever I went, I won, so I’m coming with this objective. I come to win. I want to win. I think it’s in my DNA that I’m winning trophies. It’s not luck.”

Ibrahimovic hasn’t played since Dec. 26 for Manchester United, which released him from his enormous contract for the move. Yet he returned swiftly after injuring a ligament in his right knee last April, and he said he has been “training very hard” for months.

“I need to play,” Ibrahimovic said. “I’m like a little child that you give candy for the first time, and he’s looking for candy all the time, so that is what I need. I need to play, and I want to play, so I’m hungry to play, because it has gone too long now that I haven’t felt involved in the game.”

Ibrahimovic also showed his motivation in the financial aspects of his move. He isn’t one of the Galaxy’s three designated players, instead taking a two-year deal paid with targeted allocation money – $3 million total, according to numerous reports – to fit into the Galaxy’s payroll structure.

Instead of banking a much fatter check from a European club, Zlatan appears determined to show his abilities in person to millions of new fans on a continent where soccer support has grown steadily for a generation.

Ibrahimovic’s move also should energize the Galaxy, who will mix him into coach Sigi Schmid’s intriguing collection of international talent. While French winger Romain Alessandrini and Mexican forward Giovani Dos Santos might not provide the same level of service as Paul Pogba, the Galaxy starters are among the best players in MLS, and Ibrahimovic must learn how to connect with them.

Ibrahimovic also confirmed he hasn’t ruled out a return to the Swedish national team for the World Cup this summer despite retiring from the international game in 2016, saying that “the door will always be open.”

“But I think the main focus now is Galaxy,” Ibrahimovic said. “I settle in. Get to know my new teammates. Get to know the club. Get to know the city. When I feel comfortable there, you take the next step.”

Mexico has to solve 2 major questions before the World Cup

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Eighty-seven days before taking on Germany in its first match of Russia 2018, Mexico appears to have only two major lingering questions for the final 23-man roster that will try to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in a tournament away from home. Is veteran defender Rafael Marquez going to be called? And if Giovani Dos Santos’ lackluster performances put his spot in jeopardy?

Manager Juan Carlos Osorio said recently that he already knows who are going to join him in the quest to play in the fifth game of a World Cup, something that Mexicans achieved only as hosts in Mexico 1970 and in 1986.

Currently, 20 of the 28 players that were called to play friendly matches against Iceland and Croatia appear to have their ticket booked for Russia, leaving a handful of players fighting for three roster spots.


With over two decades playing for the national team, Marquez might not play in a fifth World Cup for two reasons, the major one off the field.

Each week, the 39-year old Marquez shows signs of his demise. His team Atlas is the worst in the league and has a defense that has allowed 22 goals in 12 matches.

In Mexico there’s a big debate on whether it’s worth calling a player whose best moments are behind him.

Marquez is worshipped in the locker room because most of his teammates grew up watching him when he won the Champions League playing for Barcelona (2005-06 and 2008-09).

Besides that, Osorio has to weigh in that Marquez was sanctioned last August by the U.S. Treasury for allegedly acting as a front person for a Mexican drug lord.

Marquez stopped playing for three months to take care of the issue and returned to action in Mexico but the Treasury has not lifted the sanctions yet and Marquez is unable to play in the United States and that’s why he was not called for the friendly matches.


A 28 year-old player as talented as Giovani Dos Santos should be a lock to be on the final roster for Mexico but that’s not the case. Dos Santos, who played in South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, has not performed well for Mexico under Osorio, who loved the player and has given him opportunities to return to form, but that has not happen.

A recent injury left Dos Santos out of the squad that will play against Iceland and Croatia and that opened the doors for Rodolfo Pizarro, who has been playing great for Chivas and has a good chance of taking the spot if the L.A. Galaxy striker continues with his lackluster performance.


Taking the qualifiers and the Confederations Cup as a reference, Osorio pretty much has his roster set for the World Cup. Guillermo Ochoa and Jesus Corona will be two of the goalkeepers and Alfredo Talavera is probably the third. The defenders Nestor Araujo, Jesus Gallardo, Miguel Layun, Hector Moreno, Diego Reyes and Carlos Salcedo are also favorites of the Colombian manager, as well as the midfielders Jonathan Dos Santos, Marco Fabian, Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera and Javier Aquino. On the attack, Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, Javier Hernandez, Raul Jim�nez, Hirving Lozano, Oribe Peralta and Carlos Vela appear to have their spots secured leaving only three spaces.

Fighting for that chance are: Hugo Ayala, who’s been stellar for a Tigres team that has won two of the last three titles in Mexico; Oswaldo Alanis (Chivas), who played in last year’s Confederations Cup and Edson Alvarez (America), who’s not playing much for his club but Osorio loves his style of play and the fact that he can also play as a midfielder.

Midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez is also on the mix after declining to play for the U.S. and Omar Govea, who plays for Royal Excel in the Belgium league, has gathered interest from Osorio.

All five players will have a chance to present their cases in the upcoming friendly matches.

Battle-tested United could turn attention to Neymar this summer

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Last summer’s drama surrounding Neymar could be nothing compared to what is in store for the Brazilian in 2018.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy announces Zlatan Ibrahimovic ]

Diario Gol is reporting that Manchester United is exploring the possibility of making a bid for Neymar this summer, which would come at a record fee for the Premier League side.

The report suggests United would be willing to pay over $367 million for the Paris Saint-Germain star, while possibly sending Paul Pogba to the French giants in the swap.

Neymar, who joined PSG in 2017 after a messy ending at Barcelona, has been heavily linked to his former’s side bitter rival Real Madrid

Man United boss Jose Mourinho is reportedly keen on the move for Neymar after the club’s signing of Alexis Sanchez didn’t live up to the billing.

The Chilean international has scored just once in 10 appearances for the Red Devils, and Mourinho has let it be known that he wasn’t pleased with the player after United crashed out of the UEFA Champions League against Sevilla.

Meanwhile, Pogba’s relationship with the Portuguese manager has been anything but steady in their time together at Old Trafford, making the reality of the French midfielder leaving Manchester a strong one.

Nothing has been indicated for certain that Neymar will leave PSG following the World Cup in Russia, but all signs are pointing to the currently-injured attacker moving from the Parc des Princes.

Report: Conte, Pirlo could spearhead Italy managerial team

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Various nations are still mourning their failure of missing out on the 2018 World Cup, but arguably none bigger than powerhouse Italy.

[ MORE: Premier League player power rankings ]

The Azzurri, who lost to Sweden in a UEFA playoff series in 2017, will not take part in soccer’s most-prestigious competition in Russia for the first time since 1958.

Former manager Gian Piero Ventura has received heavy criticism for the nation’s failure, and stepped down from his role as head coach immediately after Italy’s dismissal from World Cup qualifying.

A familiar face could now be in line to replace Ventura though, as Football Italia reports that Chelsea manager Antonio Conte could make a return to the Azzurri.

Conte remains under contract at Stamford Bridge, however, Chelsea’s dip in form this season after winning the title in 2016/17 has many speculating that the Italian won’t survive to coach the Blues next year.

Meanwhile, Italian legend Andrea Pirlo has also expressed his interest in joining the technical staff if Conte is appointed.

The two have a close history together from their days with the national team and at Juventus.

In addition to Conte, Carlo Ancelotti is reportedly being considered for the job as well, and Pirlo is believed to be willing to join the managerial staff is the former Bayern Munich coach is hired.